Upward Mobility at Wake Tech

A new faculty promotion system at one of North Carolina’s largest community colleges could increase the school’s focus on education. On the other hand, it could be a sign of “mission creep,” as the college joins a recent trend of community colleges striving to look and act like universities.

Until last month, Wake Technical Community College—like nearly all community colleges in North Carolina and many in the nation—had a “flat” faculty structure: All teachers were called instructors and pay was based on their longevity and academic degrees. But the school recently announced that instructors could apply for promotions to various professorial levels, with commensurate raises—and 196 instructors became professors in a ceremony last month. That’s about 35 percent of the total faculty.

Before the change, there was no way for faculty to move up other than by entering administration. To earn more money, instructors had to leave teaching.

“There’s a different skill set that’s associated with administration,” Bryan Ryan, the senior vice president of curriculum education, explained. “Administration doesn’t take advantage of everybody’s highest and best use.” And, he added, “Our primary focus here, the mission of the college, is education.”

“In part, what we’re trying to do is recognize that we have high-quality people that hold their own very well” when compared with faculty at four-year colleges, Ryan said. “When you think of community colleges, they’re often overlooked and undervalued; in some cases it’s because of the perspective and terminology we use.” He said that Wake Tech is not “redefining” the rankings; those who earn them do work of comparable merit to four-year college professors.

The system has four tiers of promotion. Instructors with at least three years of full-time experience can apply for the rank of assistant professor. Five years makes one eligible for associate professor; seven, for full professor; and twelve, for senior professor. A peer review committee decides whether to promote each individual.

Each promotion comes with a 3 percent raise, with raises capped at 6 percent. Requirements for promotion vary, Ryan said. Professors in academic fields might merit promotion for getting published in journals, presenting at conferences, and joining statewide associations and committees. Professors in more technical fields might warrant a new title for getting licensed, getting advanced degrees, or contributing to the employment of their students.

One standard by which the peer review committee judges a faculty member is his or her contributions to the school’s applied benchmarking initiative. The initiative, implemented by Wake Tech president Stephen C. Scott, encourages faculty members to adopt best practices from other schools.

The new ranking system is not universally popular, however. Ryan told the News & Observer last month, “At community colleges, there’s sort of an egalitarian view, compared to. . . our brothers and sisters in the universities.” A former instructor who was at Wake Tech when the discussions started told the Pope Center, “There was a lot of resistance from mostly folks who either a) did not qualify [for a promotion], or b) they just flat-out wanted an egalitarian-type system.” Some of the leadership in the wider community college system also resisted, he said.

The introduction of ranks comes at a time when some community colleges are signaling that they want to move away from their workforce training roots and become more like universities. States such as Michigan and Florida are allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, and California is considering it.

Wake Tech is a big—and growing—school that struggles to get attention among neighboring powerhouses like Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. But its new basketball program, started in 2009, is making waves in Division II of the National Junior College Athletic Association. Athletic director Barry Street recently expressed in the News & Observer the desire to spread the Wake Tech name beyond the region.

But David Baime, the senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), does not envision a major change in the role of community colleges. “The colleges, they are always so organically tied, or linked to the local communities,” he told the Pope Center. He added that community colleges make “a very conscious, deliberate effort to meet the workforce needs.”

Baime said that faculty rank systems are “not uncommon,” but far from the norm—a point supported by David Clemens, an instructor at Monterey Peninsula College. Clemens, who has held the title of instructor at Monterey Peninsula College for 42 years, said that in California, “There are a couple of [community colleges] that have academic rank, but most of the teachers are adjuncts or instructors. Pay is based on longevity and education; merit is not a component. And those [community colleges] that have ranks don’t include additional pay.”

So, will the upgrading of ranks spread to other North Carolina colleges? Kelly Markson, who has been promoted to full professor of business administration, said in an email that “Wake Tech is a leader among the community colleges in NC, and I wouldn’t be surprised if others followed suit.” At a recent community college seminar, she said, “several instructors from other schools asked me about it. So, I know the word has spread, and there is a buzz about it.”

But other colleges may not have the resources to create new rankings, at least if they intend to back them with raises. Wake Tech’s size makes resources more plentiful than at smaller colleges like Nash Community College in neighboring Nash County. Dr. Bill Carver, Nash’s president, told the Pope Center that the college does have both instructors and professors but that the professor title is an honorary one. Carver said that his college does not give raises beyond what the state requires. “When we do have the funds, merit does come into play,” he said, citing several awards his college gives out. Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College, Wake Tech’s rival for the largest community college in the state, has not adopted a rank upgrade system.

Wake Tech includes additional pay only when it can afford it. It may have the funds this year because of high enrollment numbers last year, but Scott and Ryan have both said that faculty members are well aware that the funds are not guaranteed. But even if the funds are not there, the honorary rankings will remain.